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"Bridging Generations and Cultures: Catholic Lawyers for the Third Millennium"

by His Eminence Adam Cardinal Maida Archbishop of Detroit

Pope John XXIII Lecture
at Columbus School of Law

The Catholic University of America

February 4, 1998


d.gif (1087 bytes)ean Dobranski, my fellow members of the Bench and Bar, faculty, administration and students of the Catholic University of America:

It is a distinct privilege and honor to have been asked to deliver this Thirtieth Annual Pope John XXIII Lecture. Being with you this afternoon allows me the opportunity to renew my friendship with Dean Bernard Dobranski who served as Dean of our University of Detroit Mercy Law School for well over a decade. Today's occasion also provides me a setting to express publicly my commitment to the important work of this University and to acknowledge and thank all those who have leadership responsibilities. I pray that my presence today will be understood as a concrete sign of my ongoing support for the great work of this University and all its faculties.

Reviewing the list of distinguished speakers who have offered this lecture in the past, I am all the more humbled to stand as a successor of such notable authors and leaders as Professor John Noonan, The Honorable Robert Bork, Father William Byron, The Honorable William Casey and my close friend and colleague, His Eminence, Cardinal Bernard Law. I am reminded of the often stated quip that in philosophy, everyone stands on the shoulders of Plato and Aristotle or, alternatively, everything is a footnote to these two ancient philosophers.

I mention these thoughts as a way of leading into my topic - "Bridging Generations and Cultures: Catholic Lawyers for the Third Millennium.&quote; As lawyers, it is our privileged place to stand on the shoulders of great jurists, legislators and practitioners of centuries past. We can proudly trace our roots back not only to medieval England but even beyond, to the era of the Scriptures and all the earliest Middle Eastern cultures of recorded history. In every culture and in every century, law has been a necessary bedrock of society. Naturally, where there are laws, there have to be lawyers to write, interpret and apply the laws. We lawyers truly bridge generations and cultures; such is our vocation.

Our gathering together today, however, is not simply a convocation of lawyers; we are Catholic lawyers. We see our work in the legal profession as a vocation, a genuine calling from God, a way of serving God and neighbor. So it is that we seek to shape human laws in accord with laws of faith and the traditions of our Church. From age to age, we have the right and the responsibility to articulate this connection between human laws and God's laws, always looking to the Church for guidance and direction in the process.

It is indeed fitting that today's lecture is named in honor of the late Pope John XXIII, lovingly remembered for writing the groundbreaking encyclical, Pacem In Terris, and for the courageous move of convoking the Second Vatican Council. In his historic opening address to the Second Vatican Council, on October 11, 1962, the late Holy Father reflected on the mission of the Church from generation to generation. He described its mission in terms very similar to our work as Catholic lawyers - being a guarantor and preserver of continuity, while yet adapting timeless truths to the circumstances of the day. While the truths of Revelation certainly do not change, the means of expressing them necessarily change according to the cultural conditions and circumstances.

In applying his insights to our work as Catholic lawyers, perhaps we could put it this way. The laws of God are eternal and immutable. They transcend the differences of cultures, languages and ways of life, precisely because they are embedded in the core of the human person, in our hearts and consciences. Resonating harmoniously with the law of nature itself, the inner voice of God's law "written on our hearts" continually reminds us that we are part of the world of nature and a vast human society. All of our human wisdom and power is but a tiny drop of sand on the shoreline of the centuries. All valid human laws and any authentic human progress must harmonize with what is already enshrined in the all-embracing plan of God which precedes us and which will long outlast us.

The truths of human rights and dignity, common good and corporate responsibility - truths which we lawyers seek to serve and defend - must always resonate with nature itself and with each individual human heart. Ultimately, the truth we serve is God's law which transcends all cultures and all time frames. The human laws that we seek to create and enforce are merely so many guardians and manifestations, applications and clarifications of the inner core of all law, the relationship of God with humankind.

This is the great perspective that we bring to the legal profession as Catholic lawyers. We see more in every case than what meets the eye; we see the potential of grace in every legal unfolding.

Of themselves, human laws do not have the capacity to bridge cultures and centuries. It is the people who embody the law that have the wonderful opportunity and challenge to connect with people of other cultures and ways of life. When we listen to the inner voice of God's law written in our hearts, we are able to go back in time to earlier centuries and expand outward to all varieties of cultures, connecting and even celebrating our multi-faceted communion and tradition. This is our work as lawyers: to embody divine and human law in our very persons. In this way, we are not merely formulating legislation, but we are keeping alive the story of faith from age to age.

Perhaps it would be helpful here to take few moments for a brief excursion on contemporary explanations of natural law theology and how this very traditional teaching from St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Thomas and all the scholastic theologians not only retains its relevance but has current an d abiding significance for our work as Catholic lawyers.

St. Thomas situates his explanation of natural law within the context of Divine Providence: God had provided for us in the realm of created realities and all their capabilities but He also respects our freedom. Our human well-being depends on our choice to live within the scope of His love, to work with God's Spirit in the drama of world events and the flow of ordinary human life. We do this by being prudent, by reflecting on the basic human goods God has provided all around us - and to which we are naturally attached - goods such as life, truth, justice, friendship, knowledge, etcetera. In this sense, natural law is not a blueprint to which we blindly conform nor is it something imposed upon us. Rather, it is our way of participating with God in the drama of salvation, His work of drawing all people and all creation into reconciliation with Himself and with one another.

As the moral theologian and author, Pamela Hall, has put it in a recent study of natural law, St. Thomas defines natural law as "primarily our directedness to the goods of our human nature. It is, secondarily, rules for the attainment of those goods. These rules can be codified and implemented in human law." (Narrative and the Natural Law, p. 42) Our natural "inclinations" need the complement of God's more explicit law, the Ten Commandments or Decalogue. Taken together - the natural law and the Decalogue - offer us the necessary substratum and reference point for all of her human law.

In his magisterial 1993 encyclical on fundamental moral questions, "The Splendor of the Truth," Pope John Paul II reflects on the importance of natural law and how it must be the necessary foundational reference point for all human legislation. He explains how natural law must be understood as incarnated in our very selves.

In Article 51 of the encyclical, he writes: "Inasmuch as the natural law expresses the dignity of the human person and lays the foundation for his fundamental rights and duties, it is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all mankind. This universality does not ignore the individuality of human beings nor is it opposed to the absolute uniqueness of each person. On the contrary, it embraces at its root each person's free acts which are meant to bear witness to the universality of the true good...."

Our Holy Father goes on to note that while human beings are necessarily immersed in a given culture, we cannot (and should not) be defined or limited by that same culture. In fact, he explains, "The very progress of cultures demonstrates that there is something in man which transcends those cultures. This 'something' is precisely human nature: this nature is itself the measure of culture and the condition ensuring that man does not become the prisoner of any of his cultures, but asserts his personal dignity by living in accordance with the profound truth of his being....This is the reason why 'the Church affirms that underlying so many changes there are so many things which do not change and are ultimately founded up on Christ who is the same yesterday, today and forever....'" (Art. 3)

Our Holy Father builds on these same principles and applies them very specifically to our work as lawyers in a democratic society. In his 1995 encyclical on special moral questions, "The Gospel of Life," Pope John Paul II explains that democracy is a system, a means, and not an end in itself.

Its "moral value" depends precisely on its conformity to the moral law and so the value of any democracy stands or falls according to the values which it embodies and promotes.

The values of human dignity and inviolable human rights are reflections of an objective moral law, the natural law written on the human heart which is the necessary reference point for any civil law. Clearly, civil law is more limited in scope than moral law and in no case can it ever presume to take the place of conscience. I cite our Holy Father's own words: "The real purpose of civil law is to guarantee an ordered social existence and true justice...for this reason, civil law must ensure that all members of society enjoy respect for certain fundamental rights innately belonging to the person, rights which every positive law must recognize and guarantee. First and fundamental among these is the inviolable right to life of every innocent human being."

Quoting his predecessor, Pope John XXIII and his encyclical, Pacem In Terris, our current Holy Father goes on to draw the conclusion that "any government which refuses to recognize human rights or acts in violation of them would not only fail in its duty; its decrees would be wholly lacking in binding force."

This teaching is not new to the late twentieth century. If you turn to St. Thomas Aquinas, you will find a similar message. In fact, you can go all the way back to St. Augustine's line, "What is not just cannot be a law." St. Thomas gives these sparse words of Augustine a bit more flesh when he writes: "Every law made by man can be called a law only insofar as it derives from the natural law. But if it is somehow opposed to the natural law, then it is not really a law but rather a corruption of the law." (ST, I-II 95, 2.)

Our Holy Father draws the very clear, even unsettling, conclusion that any civil law authorizing abortion or euthanasia disregards our right to life - the very basis for which all laws and society exist. Therefore, such a law is not a true or morally binding civil law. As Catholic lawyers who are bridging generations and cultures, our first duty is certainly discovering, understanding and explaining the law of God; only in the second instance do we work with human law.

Put in a more positive language, as Catholic lawyers, we have the right and duty to use our training, skills and competencies to translate the Gospel of Life into all the aspects of the legal arena. Our Holy Father specifically suggests trying to work with already existing symbols present within our cultural traditions and customs - enhancing respect for newborn life, care for the suffering and the needy and closeness to the elderly and the dying. He especially appeals to those who have care for the common good "to make courageous choices in support of life, especially through legislative measures." (Gospel of Life, 90)

He notes that laws play a very important and sometimes decisive role in influencing patterns of thought and behavior. Therefore, as lawyers, we have the clear responsibility to do all that we can - directly and indirectly - to mount an effective legal defense of life, seeing to it that our civil laws reflect as far as possible the truths of the divine eternal law. If we act in this way, we are preparing well for the Third Millennium because we will be standing on the shoulders of the great tradition of life that goes back to the very first giving of the law, the Ten Commandments and God's message to the Jewish people of old, "Thou shall not kill."

Thus far, I have spoken to my theme - Bridging Generations and Cultures - by reference to the core truth, the inner reality that abides from age to age, God's law written in our hearts, the law of life. I would now like to spend a few minutes talking about how we, as lawyers, can give shape to the Word of God as we deal in the confusing but exhilarating realm of a pluralistic culture with diverse languages and traditions. As our Holy Father reminds us, "a faith which has not become culture is a faith which had not been fully received, not thoroughly worked out, not thought through, not fully lived out." (February 20, 1982, Letter founding the Pontifical Council for Culture)

When we speak about translating and applying God's laws into human laws and structures appropriate for the diverse circumstances of human culture, we must be careful not to lose the core truths of faith in the act of translation. The Gospel message and God's laws do not change and cannot be compromised. While we want to respect the given culture in which we find ourselves and highlight all its potential for good, at the same time we must not be afraid to challenge the prevalent culture. God's Word and His truth must shape the culture, not the other way around! As lawyers, we need to remember our privileged work of shaping a culture of respect for life, a culture wherein human dignity rests on the foundation of belief in God and not just human contracts and agreements.

Perhaps a recent concrete example will help to demonstrate the way to balance translating faith convictions with respect for the cultural traditions and heritage. A few days ago, I had the privilege of participating at the historic liturgy our Holy Father celebrated on the main plaza of Havana, Cuba. Over a million Cubans had gathered from all over the island along with clergy, religious and laity from all around the world. Joined together in solidarity with the Pope, we heard the Sunday Gospel of Luke 4. It was the story of Jesus going to His hometown synagogue and opening up the Scriptures, specifically Isaiah 61: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me...He has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor, release to prisoners,...to announce a year of favor from the Lord." As these verses were read, I could not help but think of the way Scripture was quoting itself. Century after century, those very lines of Isaiah 61 as re- formulated by St. Luke keep getting repeated in different cultures and circumstances. From age to age, the message is the same and yet the circumstances of language and culture vary greatly. Does not our proclamation of the Gospel keep coming back to the same core issues of human life, human rights, human dignity? Does it not always come down to the choice between human control or trust in the mystery and power of something which transcends us?

As our Holy Father spoke on the Plaza under the warm January sun of the Caribbean, tired but confident, his prophetic voice reminded the Cuban people and people everywhere that life makes sense only when lived in accord with the Gospel. No matter whether the governmental structures are democratic or totalitarian, the Gospel must be put into action on every level of society. As lawyers, it is our privileged place to help build the support network that will ensure an opportunity for people to hear and implement the Gospel. To the extent that law is helpful and necessary as a support and defense for the Gospel, our mission is clear.

As we consider the strengths and weaknesses of our legal system and even the strengths and weaknesses of law in general, it is helpful and necessary for us to remember that human laws necessarily change. No one law will ever be able to meet the needs of the given historical moment, let alone the unfolding generations yet to come. That is why we have lawyers, right?!

Laws need to be continually re-articulated, systematically re-formatted and constantly re-interpreted. In this process, our first and primary goal must always be defending and promoting the dignity of God's life written into the fiber of every human being. It is this life which is the "law above all laws." Our role as lawyers is to support and promote all that which will help to strengthen the inner core reality of God's presence in the human heart, the dignity of every person.

To do so, to be the bridges of cultures and generations, individually and personally, we must be people of integrity. But no one of us could be such a bridge or connector all on our own; we need each other in the legal profession and we need the support of communities of faith.

In fact, the law of God is best heard and understood in the ongoing narrative of a community of faith - much like I said earlier with reference to Luke 4, Isaiah 61 and Pope John Paul II. In the midst of communities of faith, we hear and live the story of Divine Providence. It is in the midst of communities of faith that we develop the virtue of prudence which enables us to recognize the natural law and to translate it into codes of action and behavior. As members of communities of faith, we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors: we tell the story of faith in word and deed, and, in turn, we become the broad shoulders on which the next generation finds its footing for their moral questions and struggles.

One of the primary ways that we can form and strengthen communities and create a strong culture of life is by building up and strengthening our families. As Robert Bellah and other sociologists remind us, we need communities of memory and hope. Of all such social structures, it is the family that best bridges generations and cultures. It is in and through the family that the children of the next generation are educated and formed.

It is in the family that people learn solidarity and inter-generational sharing. Simply put, the family is the hearth or sanctuary where God's law is learned and lived.

Our Holy Father pointed out these very same ideas in his message for January 1, 1998, the World Day of Prayer for Peace: "In the formative process, the family is indispensable. The family is the appropriate environment for the human formation of the younger formation.... The family is the first school of living, and the influence received inside the family is decisive for the future development of the individual."

Perhaps a bit of theology could help here. We become good not simply by adhering to good laws but by identifying with the source of all goodness, by being active members of God's family, the Church. So it is that you study law here, in the midst of a community of faith.

Law can teach us many things but it cannot solve every problem. Law can be a guide but it is not the end of the road. It is a means to an end. Our goal, our ultimate destiny and purpose is to return to our very origin: we come from God and we return to Him. Born into human families, we learn to recognize that we are part of a worldwide family of God's children. As St. Thomas would remind us, law is ultimately a way to build friendships with God and one another. The "bottom line" is the relationship which the law seeks to enshrine and sustain. This past Fall at the Synod for America, I experienced firsthand this sense of family and relationship. Along with 300 other bishops and religious leaders, we debated ways to overcome the many differences between North and South America. As we did so, even though we often did not speak each other's languages, relationships and friendships began to emerge. As we connected with one another, we realized the way to greater solidarity is not necessarily through legislation or special activities, but by developing better the already existing opportunities for shared experiences. We kept coming back to the point that what we share is so much more significant and fundamental than all the things which divide us: w share one same human existence. We believe that we have been redeemed by Jesus Christ and so we celebrate the same Eucharist Sunday after Sunday. The same Holy Spirit prompts each of us to serve and to be concerned about the well-being of others.

Such giving and receiving is essential for every culture and happens whenever the Christian family gathers for the celebration of the Eucharist. It is then and there that we experience most vividly and powerfully the love of God which bridges generations and cultures. If we are going to be lawyers who bridge generations and cultures, then we need to be actively involved members of parish communities, hearing God's Word each Sunday and letting that Word challenge all our prejudices and fears, stretching us beyond our immediate comfort zone and focused agendas.

As I move toward my conclusion, I would like to refer to the very last words of the title of my talk, "Bridging Generations and Cultures: Catholic Lawyers for the Third Millennium." Twenty centuries have passed since the mystery of God dwelling among us in concrete human flesh. As our Holy Father has challenged us, sadly, as a Church and as a society, we do not seem to be that much nearer to God or to each other; clearly, we all need to repent and to change many of our ways of thinking and acting. As the Holy Father has written and said a number of times these last several years, we need to use these last years of our century for a collective examination of heart. Only then will we be ready to articulate a new commitment to defend all life as a gift of God. Highway bridges and overpasses need to be constantly rebuilt! If we lawyers are to be "bridges" of cultures and generations, obviously we ourselves need to be changed, reformed and renewed!

Our challenge is well-articulated by T.S. Eliot in his Choruses from the Rock: "Our world of Spring and Autumn, Birth and Dying, endless invention and endless experiment has brought us knowledge of motion but not of stillness; knowledge of speech but not of silence; knowledge of words and ignorance of the Word.... "

We need to listen more intently - to God's voice within us and God's voice manifest in the wonder of creation itself, especially in every human life. As lawyers, it is our privilege to be the voice for so many who do not have the words or for those who have no voice at all! (I think of course of the 35 million children who have never seen the light of day since Roe vs. Wade 25 years ago.

We have FAXES and Internet connecting us instantaneously, making us a global community. One jitter on the stock market in Tokyo or Hong Kong ripples in every corner of the rest of the world. Sadly, however, we have not yet recognized our truest and most vital connection to the past and to the future is ourselves! We have not yet understood that our link to other cultures is ultimately about developing relationships! Law is good and necessary as a reference point but what matters most are the human persons who practice the law and the human persons who are the subjects of the law. And, of course, all our laws will make no sense unless a relationship with God is at the center. To quote T.S. Eliot once more, "What life have you if you have not life together? There is no life that is not lived in community and no community not lived in praise of God."

How do we bridge generations and cultures? By remembering that we stand on the shoulders of all the great men and women of the past - Plato and Aristotle; Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and all the prophets; the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul XXIII; and above all, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The dawning of the Third Millennium of His birth among us and all the excitement (and confusion) of the year 2001 challenge us to go back to our roots, to remember our common origin and our ultimate shared destiny.

As we observe 25 sad years of Roe vs. Wade and 30 years since the tragic death of Dr. Martin Luther King, we can see clearly enough the limits and failures of human laws which have not been adequately reflective of God's law. We can see clearly enough reason for change and repentance in the way we think and act toward one another.

We all want to begin a new century and a whole new millennium with fresh hope for a new outpouring of grace and collaboration, the building of the City of God whose foundation and centerpiece will be a just and healthy relationship with God and one another. To build a more just society, a culture of respect, we need to begin with the most basic building block of all, the dignity of human life itself. We will be able to bridge cultures and generations as we work together to respect the dignity of human life, something which is enshrined in the law of God which transcends all cultures and all time. To Him be glory now and in endless ages.

I conclude with words of praise for God's law, verses taken from Psalm 1 19, which are proscribed for the Divine Office each midday. They are words which priests and religious pray in the very midst of their daily activities, words that are also very appropriate for us in the legal profession as we bridge generations and cultures. Let us, therefore, pray:

"Lord, teach me the way of your laws, I shall observe them with care. Give me insight to observe your teaching, to keep it with all my heart.

"Lead me in the path of your commands, for that is my delight. See how I long for your precepts; in your justice give me life. Your word, Lord, stands forever; it is firm as the heavens. Through all generations your truth endures; fixed to stand firm like the earth. I will never forget your precepts; through them you give me life. I am yours; save me, for I cherish your precepts."

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